Evangelical Mick Bohan keeps his eye on the ball

Mick Bohan. Picture: Donall Farmer

Mick Bohan has worked alongside Jim Gavin embedding skills in Dublin, he has helped raised standards in Clare, and now his Dublin women stand on the cusp of an All-Ireland final. At the core of everything he does is simplifying Gaelic football’s most complex skills, writes Daragh Ó Conchúir.

A simple skill is one that is straightforward, requires little concentration and cognitive ability. A complex skill involves a large attention span because they (sic) are complicated and are practised in training repeatedly to make it easier to perform in competition.”

Frank Gilligan, Advanced PE for Edexcel (2000)

Nowadays, it is generally accepted that there is much to be learned by GAA coaches from other sports, although you will always find the dinosaur or headline-loving TV pundit who considers such an outlook heretic.

A PE teacher by profession, who has been something of a skills evangelist in Gaelic football for the past quarter of a century, Mick Bohan was a little ahead of the curve in terms of looking beyond his own patch.

Rugby and especially basketball have heavily influenced his work. The latter code has long had an emphasis on using two balls in training to utilise both hands and develop evasion skills almost automatically. When Bohan had just seven players to work with at a DCU training session one evening, he decided to give them each two balls and to bring kicking off either foot into the equation and a new routine was born. It’s worth looking up if you have any interest in skills development.

Complex skills are only complicated at the beginning. Indeed they should not be complex at all at adult level, given that hand-passing and especially kicking are basics of football. But somewhere along the line, as the benefits of increased fitness and conditioning were discovered, the skills were taken for granted.

Not when Bohan was around though. His first involvement with Dublin’s ladies footballers was in 2002 alongside Willie Lillis. They were a Division 2 side and the county had never won a Leinster title at senior level. That was rectified during the summer and they retained the title the following year, only losing out in their maiden All-Ireland final appearance to a Diane O’Hora goal for Mayo in the dying embers.

He was a key cog with Niall Moyna and Tony Diamond as DCU won their first three Sigerson Cups from 2006 to 2012, and was involved in the development squad system in Dublin. Jim Gavin got him on board as the Blues garnered two
All-Ireland U21 championships and
when Gavin got the nod to succeed Pat
Gilroy as senior boss in 2013, he brought Bohan with him with a specific responsibility as skills coach. The spectacular
improvement in Eoghan O’Gara’s ball work is held up as the shining example of Bohan’s BALL (Beats Any Long Laps) philosophy. An All-Ireland followed.

He stood down after the shock semi-final defeat to Donegal in 2014 following the death of his father and one of his closest friends in a short space of time. Both had strong Clare connections – Bohan’s father was a Banner native, a brother of hurling legend Fr Harry – so he decided to honour them in 2015 by offering his services to football boss Colm Collins, taking on the coaching job vacated by Ephie Fitzgerald, current supremo of the Cork ladies footballers. By the year’s end, they had won a Division 3 title and appeared in an All-Ireland quarter-final. He continues to aid the county’s progress by working on structures for the development squads.

The Clontarf clubman is back in the fold with Dublin’s ladies footballers, this time as manager. They are one of the most admirable squads in the country, much like Mayo footballers, returning to the well year after year despite a seemingly endless catalogue of near-misses. The Jackies have lost the last three All-Ireland finals to Cork by a cumulative total of four points.

Unlike Mayo’s men, they did get over the line once in the modern era, in 2010, but have illustrated time and again their appetite for getting back into the trenches, when it might be easier to just not bother anymore. They have responded to the new gaffer’s very evident and infectious
enthusiasm and play Kerry this evening in the All-Ireland semi-final at Semple
Stadium (6.30pm). And we’ll get to that.

Tomorrow, most of the boys he spent so much time with for five seasons from 2010 will face their sternest challenge of the year to date against Tyrone in their last-four clash.

Nobody has done more than Gavin

“There is a higher expectation on you at inter-county football than any other level as you’re judged by trophies. I wasn’t being questioned but the structure of what you asked them to do had to make sense because they’re very intelligent fellas.

“I’d know Jim a long time but 2010 was my first involvement with him. Even now, though we’re in different roles, he’s hugely supportive and drops over once a week just to sit on the fence and watch for 15 minutes before going back over to his own group. Having that kind of camaraderie is pleasant as we’re still under the same flag.

“Lots of people want to know about Jim Gavin because he’s intriguing. He’s kept himself at arm’s length and you can only admire him for that. At the end of the day he’s trying to be as successful as he possibly can for the time he is there. As long as he is in charge of Dublin, Dublin people can rest easy that everything in his power or the power of the people involved with the seniors is being done to make them successful. I don’t think in the history of time, and that’s not dismissing Heffo or Pat Gilroy or Pat O’Neill or anyone else who has done it, I don’t think any man has done as much work or put the same effort or structures in place to make a success of things as he has.

“I spoke to a journalist who was giving out about the early press calls on a Friday morning. I’d have to respect that. Is it not difficult for him to get up at that time on a Friday morning? But he’s actually giving you a bit of an insight into his world. If you want to get something, if you’re that keen to be successful, whether it’s for an interview or for a trophy, it’s the hard yards. What a message.

“That 2014 semi-final, as long as he’s around, will never be forgotten. That sent him into a dark hole. I would imagine to this day, every time he feels he’s getting a step ahead of himself, I’d say he puts on that clip. That was two teams trying to go at what they believed in – one an offensive game, the other a defensive game… As long as he is there, that will never be forgotten.

“Tyrone are playing a really good energetic game but this Dublin team has learned to be very patient.”

Learning to kick in Clare

“The first night I went down to Cratloe in Clare, the kitman asked me how many footballs would we need. I asked him how many players were present and he told me 26. So I told him we’d need 26 footballs. He walks away and he sniggers.

“I said to him ‘What are you laughing at?’ In his best Clare accent he says to me ‘Jesus Mick, we wouldn’t be used to taking the footballs out around here until around June.’ It took quite a while to change that.

“Gary Brennan said to me one day in training, when we were doing some complex drills work with the two footballs, ‘Mick, we struggle down here to control one football, never mind two.’ That culture existed but very quickly they bought into it and again, I remember introducing it with the Dublin players, tennis balls and stuff, and fellas looking at me out of the corner of their eye wondering ‘Is this fella the full shilling?’ But eventually when they see the skillsets improving and see the results, everybody buys in.

“While I spent a little more time at the start with the Dublin lads explaining why, I spent less time with the Clare lads explaining why because I knew they needed more work as they were coming from a lower skill base. The bottom line was that they bought in and more importantly, Colm bought in.

“Right from the start, Jim had a huge emphasis on the skills and Colm gradually bought into that process and I would be very clear on that now.

“I said this at the start last year, ‘I’m coming down here to coach a senior team and try to change the standards, but the legacy would be that we leave a structure in place behind us’ and for me now, that’s why this year was encouraging because they didn’t just throw out the bathwater and the baby. They kept it and they continued it and that, nearly in some way, was even more pleasing for me to see than what they achieved last year.

“Winning a Division 3 title in Croke Park was a fantastic achievement. Beating Kildare. I don’t care what anyone says. Kildare have a really good collection of footballers and should be achieving more than they are. For Clare to beat them in Croke Park, for Clare to win a game of that magnitude, the first time a Clare senior team ever won a game at Croke Park, was an incredible achievement.

“But the real big achievement in the year, as the supporters told us, in their estimation, was that it was the first time since the ‘90s where they went watching Clare football where they could enjoy it.

“That situation with us, whereby people were coming away from the games being entertained and saying it was enjoyable, that meant a lot, particularly in a county where you’re trying to promote a sport because it’s the secondary sport to hurling in the county.

“I look back at Gordon Kelly. He never kicked the ball. I was about 12 weeks into it, it was our second league game and I was figuring out why the transition of the ball was so slow. So I rang him and I said to him ‘Why are you not kicking the ball?’ and he said to me ‘Because I’ve been told not to.’

“‘Give that one to me again? A centre-back who’s been told not to kick the ball?’ He says ‘Have you seen me kick it?’ I said ‘Well Gordon, you either learn to kick the fucking thing properly or you don’t play but you’re not going to be in that position where you can’t kick the ball. Otherwise, we’re too slow going up the pitch. All those small little things change eventually changed and fellas become more confident and they grow as players.

“I know we’re all judged on trophies but I don’t get caught up in that and I haven’t. Obviously, like everybody else you enjoy success but player development has always been high on my agenda.”

Can you bate breeding?

“We’ve had some decent sessions since the Waterford game so they’re in good fettle but this is a completely different test. Kerry played some really good football that day (against Armagh), they move the ball quickly and they come with that legacy of the Kerry footballer, male or female, don’t they?

“In 2014, after we were beaten by Donegal, I went down to an U13 tournament in Austin Stacks with my young fella. It was hard to go down, a week after losing an All-Ireland semi-final, still in a dark hole.

“I will never forget the mothers talking to their young fellas on the pitch. I had been told it but I had never experienced it. The way they spoke to the kids was the way a father in Dublin might speak to his son, a guy who was really involved. This was a group of 12 or 13 mothers and they knew their football in a way before that I had never seen before from a girl.

“The same evening I went into the clubhouse in Austin Stacks and there was a picture on the wall. I can’t remember the numbers exactly but it was something like five players, one club and 13 All-Irelands. (Kieran) Donaghy was in the picture. So I took a picture of it on my phone and as I was walking away, this man, who was in his 80s, tapped me and he said to me, ‘And there’s two missing’ (as Donaghy and Daniel Bohane had been on the 2009-winning side after the photo had been taken).

“He wasn’t letting me away thinking that was all they’d won. He was pulling me up. I just thought it was incredible… I just thought to myself, what a phenomenal way for children to grow up. They’re surrounded by it and it doesn’t miss their women either. They have grown up with success around them and it does breed it.

“I see it with the present generation of Dublin footballer. It’s not an arrogance, it’s a confidence. Our kids in the city are growing up watching Dublin… my young fella doesn’t know what it’s like for Dublin to lose! That does breed a confidence. You grow up a stronger, more focused, believing in your own county, your own abilities much more so.

“Kerry have won two U16 All-Irelands and a heap of them are pulled into the senior squad – but when you grow up as a kid like that, with that confidence, you don’t fear things. They’re a tough, physical team and they come with that lovely skill set that’s being promoted all those years.”

“We put a huge emphasis on skill sets and understanding their roles within the set-up, and obviously a style of play. That’s really what we went after and we’ve seen, right from the off, an incredible desire to be better. I’m not talking about trophies or anything like that. Just the reality of trying to play the best possible football that you can and that’s what we’ve strived to achieve and they bought into it. If you walked into our dressing room or training session you’d feel a huge energy.

“It’s a learning curve for me, a different type of a game. I remember the first time we got involved with a senior inter-county team in 2002… We were beaten in an All-Ireland semi-final by Mayo. The rules stated that there was no contact in ladies football. Well by jaysus did I get a learning curve that year. I tried to go by the rules and then we played Mayo and we got chewed up and spat out. We changed the way we went about it the following year.

“In saying all of that and these are the things you have to keep reflecting on – we brought a group from Division 2 to back-to-back Leinsters and get to a first All-Ireland final. You have to keep reminding people of where they were and where they’re trying to get to because it doesn’t happen overnight. Nothing happens overnight. A lot of people in coaching want to be handed a player gift-wrapped and ready to go. It’s not like that. It’s hard work.

“This is a 50-50 game but I would be very confident that we’re well prepared. They’re enjoying the challenges of trying to bring what they’ve practised on the training field onto the field. Again, there’s a confidence that comes from that.”


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